hat tip=Margo I. 

Voice for Abused Women Upsets Dubai Patriarchy

Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times

Sharla Musabih, right, the founder of City of Hope, Dubai’s first women’s shelter, said goodbye to a departing resident last July.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — For years, Sharla Musabih has fought a lonely battle to protect battered wives and victims of human trafficking here. She founded the Emirates’ first women’s shelter here and she became a familiar figure at police stations, relentlessly hounding officers to be tougher on abusive husbands.

Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times

Ms. Musabih with a shelter resident’s child. Her aggressiveness stands out, as does her habit of calling her charges “darlin’.”

She has also earned many enemies. Emiratis do not often take kindly to rights advocates drawing attention to the dark side of their fast-growing city-state on the Persian Gulf, better known for its gleaming office towers and artificial islands.

Still, no one was quite prepared for the stories that started appearing in Dubai newspapers this month. Suddenly, unidentified female victims were coming forward to say that “Mama Sharla” herself had abused them, forced them to work as servants and sold their stories to foreign journalists for thousands of dollars, pocketing the proceeds. She even sold one woman’s baby, the articles said, hinting at criminal investigations.

To Ms. Musabih and her supporters, the accusations, which appear to be baseless, are the latest chapter in a long campaign of threats and defamation that began with angry husbands and has grown to include prominent clerics, and even the directors of a new government-financed women’s shelter, who, she says, would like to silence her.

The ferocity of the dispute is unusual for Dubai, and underscores a major challenge facing this proudly apolitical business capital. The city’s few rights advocates have always been quietly shunted aside. But as the conservative Muslim ethos of Dubai’s native Arab minority rubs against the varied perspectives of a much larger foreign population, debates about how to approach taboo subjects like domestic violence and the city’s prevalent prostitution are getting louder.

Battling Tradition

Ms. Musabih, 47, a boisterous American transplant who was born and raised on Bainbridge Island, Wash., argues that confrontation is essential in fighting the patriarchal Arab traditions that allow men to beat their wives with impunity. She and her supporters also say the Emirates have not acknowledged the severity of their problem with human trafficking, the brutal business in which foreign women are lured here with promises of jobs and then forced into prostitution or servitude. Last year the United States State Department placed the Emirates and 31 other countries on a watch list for failing to effectively combat the illegal trade.

“When a woman has three broken bones in her back, and the police don’t take it seriously, yes, I get angry,” Ms. Musabih said.

Others say Ms. Musabih’s aggressive approach — which includes appeals to foreign news media as well as tough, face-to-face lobbying — is inappropriate in the Arab world, and has needlessly fueled the backlash she now faces. That assertiveness may also have made it easier to dismiss her as an outsider. Although she has lived here for 24 years, converted to Islam, is an Emirati citizen, wears a veil and has raised six children here with her Emirati husband, Ms. Musabih is still unmistakably American, from her moralistic zeal to her habit of calling the women in her shelter “darlin’.”

“I have told her sometimes I think she is wrong, she goes too far,” said Lt. Gen. Dahi al-Khalfan, the chief of the Dubai Police, who has supported Ms. Musabih in the past but now tends to criticize her work as divisive. “There is a case between husband and wife; let the court decide! Leave it.”

Safety and a Ticket Home

Ms. Musabih dates her work as an advocate from 1991, when she started tracking domestic violence cases and offering women shelter in her home in Dubai. In 2001, she rented a two-story house in the Jumeira district and opened a shelter for abused women and their children, naming it City of Hope.

On a recent afternoon, children’s toys littered the floors in the shelter’s sunlit living room, and several women snacked in the kitchen, while others sprawled on couches watching television upstairs. Although Ms. Musabih has had some dedicated assistants over the years, it is basically a one-woman show; she deals with everything from belligerent former husbands to buying plane tickets, sometimes with her own money, for foreign women to return to their home countries.

“I’ve repatriated 400 victims in the past six months,” said Ms. Musabih, a fast-talking, energetic figure who presides over the shelter like an overworked mother.

Establishing the shelter was unusual enough in the Arab world, where going outside the family to resolve domestic conflicts has little basis in law or custom. Ms. Musabih’s personal advocacy made her work even more startling. She would counsel women to leave their husbands if they were being beaten, and help represent them in courts or foreign consulates.

She would also march into police stations and yell at officers if she felt they were not protecting women in danger. In the Arab world it is virtually unheard of for a woman to behave this way toward a man, and the officers sometimes felt they had been publicly humiliated.

Some women who have spent time in the shelter say this tough approach is necessary. The police in Dubai “won’t do anything to protect you while you’re legally married,” said one former resident of the shelter, who declined to give her name because she still fears repercussions, from her husband and from others who oppose Ms. Musabih.

After her husband beat her repeatedly, the woman said, she appealed to the police, who made her husband sign a promise that he would not do it again. He violated the pledge again and again, she said, but the police did nothing, even after he broke into another house where she was seeking refuge and raped her.

“The police told me, ‘We can’t do anything, he’s your husband,’ ” she said.

But Ms. Musabih’s approach clearly shocked and angered many, and not just the husbands whose wives found shelter.

A prominent cleric, Ahmed al-Kobeissi, recently gave interviews to Dubai newspapers in which he said Ms. Musabih’s work “goes against the traditions of Emirati people” because she “instigates wives against their husbands.” Mr. Kobeissi also voiced indignation at Ms. Musabih’s suggestion that Emirati men are among the clients of Dubai’s many prostitutes.

Ms. Musabih’s work took on a higher public profile when she joined a crusade against the practice of using children, some as young as 4, as camel jockeys, once common in the Persian Gulf. Her advocacy led to a number of television and newspaper reports about the horrific abuses practiced on young jockeys, and appears to have helped lead to a ban on the practice in the Emirates in 2005.

Ms. Musabih is full of praise for the Emirati government’s response on this issue, and says it responded quickly and effectively to her appeals to change the laws. But her highly public approach to the problem is said to have angered some influential Emiratis, who felt she had embarrassed the leadership instead of allowing the matter to be settled quietly.

In the early spring of 2007, government officials approached Ms. Musabih about plans for a new state-sanctioned women’s shelter, apparently intended to replace hers. At first she welcomed the idea, because her shelter was often crowded and she was struggling to manage financially. They praised her pioneering work and said she could help direct the new shelter as a board member.

As the project evolved, it became clear that the government’s approach was vastly different from Ms. Musabih’s. It hired a director with a background in management and a more subdued style. On the grounds of an old rehabilitation center 20 minutes from Dubai with high fences and guards, the new shelter, known as the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, resembles an American low-security prison.

Ahmed al-Mansouri, the chairman of the foundation’s board, says there was a need for a more organized approach and a shelter that, unlike Ms. Musabih’s, was licensed by the government. He says she was not making adequate progress on the legal cases of the women in her shelter, a claim she vehemently disputes. He also describes the familial chaos of the City of Hope shelter as a “horrible way of living.”

Certainly, the new shelter is more spacious, and has better access to schooling for the women’s children.

Feeling of Betrayal

In October, buses arrived at City of Hope and they moved 35 women to the foundation shelter.

But Ms. Musabih soon began to feel that the directors of the new shelter had betrayed her and were negligent with the women in some cases, a claim the foundation denies. She says the foundation was more interested in getting foreign women back to their home countries with a minimum of embarrassment, than in investigating wrongs that had been done to them and preventing those wrongs from recurring.

If the new shelter was meant to replace Ms. Musabih and quiet her down, it became clear over the following months that it would not work. City of Hope continued to take in new women, and as Ms. Musabih kept criticizing the Dubai Foundation’s approach, her relations with its directors became steadily nastier.

When one of the women who was moved to the foundation tried to commit suicide in December, Ms. Musabih accused its staff of negligence. After a heated exchange, the foundation’s director, Afra al-Basti, sued Ms. Musabih for slander.

It was then that the scandalous articles about Ms. Musabih began appearing in Dubai newspapers.

The sources for those articles appear to have been women at the foundation shelter who, like some of their counterparts at the City of Hope, are vulnerable or unstable, and have been drawn into the dispute boiling around them. Some speak no English or Arabic, and are easily manipulated. How exactly they came to spread false stories about Ms. Musabih’s selling babies or taking thousands of dollars from foreign journalists is still not clear.

Ms. Musabih, speaking by phone from Ethiopia, where she is setting up a shelter, said she felt betrayed.

“I never thought it would go this far,” she said. “These people think I’m an enemy of the state and that I need to be controlled.”

But even some of her supporters wonder whether Ms. Musabih, for all her pioneering accomplishments, could not have avoided all the ugliness if she had been willing to do things more quietly.

“With Sharla, it is ‘No, I am right,’ and she always deals with people straight on,” said Awatif Badreddine, a supervisor at City of Hope. “But I tell her you have to deal with people differently here. The Arabs don’t like this. Sometimes you have to go around to get what you want.”


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